Thursday, 23 July 2015

My Nine Worlds 2015 Schedule

With this year's Nine Worlds just around the corner - well, two whole weeks away - I thought it was about time I got my schedule out into the world.  I'm fairly busy this time, at least in comparison to anything I've been at in the last year or so, and I'm also set for a pretty intimidating first.  I mean, having got my head around appearing on panels, then moderating panels, and then appearing on a game show with a live audience, (okay, I didn't even slightly get my head around that), I thought I'd faced all the fears I have to face.  But no!  Just like uncle H.P. taught us, there will always be new existential terrors to stare down, and I'll be doing some good, hard staring at this year's Nine Worlds.  But more on that in a moment.  Because before the really scary stuff, we have...

- How To Break Into Comics - But seriously, how?; 13:30 PM Friday

I specifically asked to be on this, because I have no idea how to break into comics and I'm hoping someone will tell me.  There must be a way!  I really thought I had it when I sent Stan Lee my severed ear, but no, not even a reply.  Although I'm pretty certain he was wearing it in place of his own for his Ant-Man cameo, the goof.  Anyway, I'm sure there'll be some great advice flying around on this one - but expect me to be the one listening to it, not giving it.

(Please don't tell the organisers this, I think I've got them them fooled.)

- The Humanitarian Element: Superheroic Ethics - Heroism, compromise & the reality of intervening under fire; 11:45 AM Sunday

Whereas this I actually have a serious interest in, and will probably be saying serious things in a very serious voice.  (You've probably never heard my serious voice.)  I've noticed in recent months that I'm getting awfully bored of superheroes who behave like thugs, and of seeing stuff get smashed for no good reason, and of vigilantes who never actually seem to help anyone.  I've got to a point where every time a house gets 'sploded or a car gets trashed I start worrying over insurance policies.  I am, in fact, so dubious about needlessly destructive superheroes these days that I'm about to write a damn novel on the subject.  So come, hear me rant!  (Or else hear me get shouted down by people better informed than I!)

- Monsterclass - How to really write a short story; 2.30 PM Sunday

And here, at the end, we get to the really alarming bit.  Yeah, that would be me teaching an hour-long workshop on how to write a short story.  Which, okay, is at least something I can claim a limited degree of knowledge on, having knocked out over a hundred of the things and sold somewhere around seventy.  But have I learned anything through that process?  If I have, can I possibly convey it to other human beings?  For that matter, are there other human beings irresponsible enough to listen to me talk at them for a whole hour?  And if I can't even answer questions like these, what chance do I have of teaching an hour long workshop?  Ha!  Well we'll see, all right.  Seriously, though, I'm determined to do a good job on this, if only because it's quite the privilege to be asked.


So there we have it: my Nine Worlds itinerary.  I have to admit, I'm looking forward to this one; I get to talk about some interesting stuff, and as much as it's a bit frightening, I'm buzzed about the idea of having a go at running a workshop.

Which, come to think of it, I really should be planning, instead of writing this...

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

EdgeLit Impressions

This Saturday just passed was my first experience of Edge Lit, which I'd gone out of my way to make
it to this year having been told repeatedly by a fair number of people that - despite being just the one day - it was one of the better UK conventions.  And lo and behold, that was entirely true, though I'm still not one hundred percent sure as to why.

Certainly the content was the usual mix of launches, talks, readings and panels, and at least when it came to the last of those, it would be a stretch to suggest that there was anything being said that hadn't been covered elsewhere.   The only one I made it to was pleasant enough; a polite chat amongst some excellent writers saying interesting things, albeit at a volume that wasn't quite up to the task of such a big space.  Honestly, speaking as someone who's desperate to see the convention scene get the shake-up it's long overdue, the content side seemed to me a bit above fine - and under other circumstances, that would probably have left me grumbling.
Me, Del and Kim Lakin-Smith, a bar.

In the case of Edge Lit, though, it just didn't bother me a great deal.  And despite what I said above, it occurs to me that I actually have a really good idea why that was: it's absolutely the right size for the thing that it is, and it has absolutely the perfect venue, in the shape of Derby's Quad.  That space was just right to make everything feel friendly and intimate, where so many conventions are sprawling and anonymous and kind of intimidating.  And that sort of consideration ran through a great deal of Edge Lit.  Why aren't more conventions towards the centre of the country, where folks from both north and south can attend?  In cities where you can get a cheap room for the night in a good hotel?  And where there are plenty of places to pop out for food and drink nearby?  The Quad was just a damn fine venue, and the scale of everything was exactly right for the event it was, and the event used the available space exceedingly well.  With all the program items within a couple of minutes walk and a large, well-staffed bar for any quiet periods, it was downright tough to get bored.

Now, if some of what I've said sounds like damning praise then it isn't meant to be; or rather, it maybe is, but of UK conventions in general rather than Edge Lit specifically.  And though there was a considerable proportion of professional authors there, I can absolutely see that I wasn't the target audience; with its welcome emphasis on workshops, Edge Lit is clearly aiming primarily at up-and-coming writers, and I've no doubt that a few years ago I'd have found it to be just about the most useful and enlightening thing imaginable.

These days, however, my requirement for a convention has a lot more to do with a nice big bar and a location that doesn't cost me a fortune to get to, and like I said, Edge Lit nailed that stuff right to the table.  Also, as someone who's always impressed when people get the little things right, I feel I should mention that it had by far the most professionally produced program I've yet seen and the first goodie bag to contain something I actually really wanted, in the shape of a downright marvelous CD compilation put together by author John Connolly.  (Seriously, if you were there and haven't given it a spin yet, do right now.)  And lastly, since I still feel like this praise has been a little on the watered-down side, let's finish by pointing out that I had a bloody good day, that I got to hang out with a whole bunch of terrific people, and that I will certainly be going back again next year.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Novel Update, Mid-2015

It seems like a while since I've talked about my multifarious ongoing novels here, (or indeed about anything much besides nineties anime), and so I thought that June drawing to a close was a sensible enough reason to stop and think loudly about just where everything's at.  It's a good time for a little retrospection and forward-thinking, too, as it turns out, since some long term projects are finally drawing towards a close, whilst others are in the process of blossoming from half-formed ideas into actual, real work that I have to figure out how to begin in the near future.

On the endings front, I literally just finished with the second draft of my first attempt at a crime novel, The Bad Neighbour.  Of everything I've done, I can't think of a project where the first and second drafts were such completely different experiences.  I wrote the first draft at - what was for me, anyway - high speed.  I'm coming to learn that the first drafts of novels aren't my favourite part of the writing process on the best of days, but this felt like four and a half months of yanking my own teeth out, and by the end I wasn't hopeful for what I'd accomplished, only grateful it was done with.  So that when the feedback from my beta-readers came back as almost entirely positive, I felt nothing but confused; had I somehow sent people the wrong manuscript?  Maybe e-mailed out a copy of someone else's book?  But as it turned out, no.  Going back to Bad Neighbour, I was shocked by how well it held together.  I still am, really.  The second draft work felt like what I'd normally expect of a third draft, lots of tidying and polishing and not much in the way of surgery, and I liked what I ended up with.  It's a vicious, pulpy little beast, not even slightly like anything I've attempted, but I'm not sure if it isn't the best novel I've written.

Mind, maybe I shouldn't say that, because I'm about to embark on the final draft of Degenerates - the novel once called War For Funland, though it's changed immeasurably since those days - and I'd hate to hurt its feelings.  Overhauling relatively old work into something I can be happy with has been a hell of a thing, and not only has it involved adding a new viewpoint character, greatly enlarging the role of others whilst removing a few more, excising huge chunks and adding others and an overall staggering amount of editing, but in the last draft I completely rejigged the basic structure and changed the entire damn book from past to present tense.  Which is not a thing you want to do to a one hundred and thirty thousand word novel, I tell you.  But, you know, worth it - I think.  I mean, I've just read over the last draft and felt pretty good about it.  If I feel the same in three months' time then that's novel number five in the bag.

As for number seven - that being my medieval noir fantasy White Thorne - it's at almost exactly its midway point.  And so far, if it's taught me one thing, it's that writing historical fiction is really damn hard.  I mean, writing about the First World War was no easy thing, but at least I felt like I had some fundamental things in common with the folks I was trying to make real; technologically, psychologically, sociologically, we had enough shared ground that it seemed like I could find a way into their heads.  But the Middle Ages?  Those people were basically aliens.  Months of research have taught me that they didn't live like us, they didn't think like us, and I'm at a point now where if someone tried to convince me that they all had four arms apiece I might believe it.  So - White Thorne is not going smoothly.  However I just got through explaining how an agonising first draft can yield solid results, and damn but I'm clinging to that belief, while I shovel on with what is absolutely, definitely the most difficult thing I've yet tried.  All I'm saying is, this book better turn out great, because if not then I'm going to punch it in the mouth.

Last up, and next on the horizon, there's the project currently going under the tentative title of The Uplifted.  It's been bouncing around my brain for a long while now, ever since I wrote a short story called Wunderkind, which appeared to minimal attention in a fanzine called Bards and Sages Quarterly.  The core idea - of superheroes in a world ravaged by an apocalypse that they, with their unfamiliar and unchecked powers, inadvertently brought about - somewhere along the line combined with the classic story-line of Red Harvest - which if you haven't read it, you've certainly come across in one of its guises, as A Fist Full of Dollars or Yojimbo or the original Django or Last Man Standing - and then suddenly I had this thing that I kept referring to as my Post-Apocalyptic Red Harvest Superhero Novel, to the confusion and consternation of everyone.  But hey, if you're a writer and you're not causing confusion and consternation then you're probably not doing your job properly.  Or so I'm telling myself, as I try to put together an outline of its increasingly tangled plot, with the (perhaps slightly optimistic) view of starting work before the end of this month.

Is that everything?  Well, no, not quite; but it's enough to going on with, and I'm sure I'll be getting to the other stuff soon enough.  Now back to the all-but-impossible task of trying to invent superpowers no one's thought of before...

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 4

Are we really up to part 4?  That's a whole lot of nineties anime watched!  And truth be told, exhaustion is beginning to set in just a little, as it becomes increasingly apparent that a lot of nineties anime was far from being entirely original, and even more of it was far from being being terribly good.

Does that mean I'm close to giving up?  Oh hell no!  Where there's nineties anime to be found, there I shall be, making snarky comments whilst desperately trying to remain optimistic that there are still a few hidden gems out there waiting to be unearthed.  And this week sees a movie I'd never remotely heard of get damn close to classic status, so there's certainly still hope yet.

Here, then, for your delectation, we have X, Spriggan, New Gall Force and Zeoraima...

X, 1996, dir: Rintaro

It's difficult to know what to say about X.  It's certainly a cut above much of what I've been watching lately, and - if you can put aside the fact that the only edition apparently available is a typically half-arsed transfer from Manga Video, that looks distinctly washed out and for some reason decides to sit the image in the centre three quarters of the screen - then it's a frequently lovely-looking bit of work, full to brimming with striking images.  Mind you, that's about what you'd expect from director Rintaro, whose next film would be the more-or-less classic adaptation of Osama Tesuka's Metropolis.  X is also based on a book by famous Manga house Clamp, who seemed to be everywhere at this point in time, and their input is great if you like huge eyes and pointy chins.  But even if you find the Clamp look rather horrible - I do - it at least guarantees a level of imagination and consistency in the character designs.  (Also gloriously well-animated hair.  What was it with Clamp and hair?)

So.  It looks nice and it's well directed - though not so much so as you'd expect from the man who would imminently make Metropolis, and there's a definite sense, corroborated by the interview among the special features, that Rintaro wasn't one hundred percent happy with the project.  Still, a half-hearted Rintaro is still a well above average director, and there's no denying that X has character and visual imagination to spare.  By all the usual yardsticks, in fact, it's undeniably good work.

Only, it's no fun.  No, that's not even the half of it ... X is a truly miserable watch.  I'd go so far as to use the word nihilistic, and not even in an interesting way.  X basically presents to us a load of people who we're told in advance are going to die, and then we watch them die, with nary a hint of dramatic tension anywhere.  None of them have been built up into anything you could honestly describe as characters and so there's not much reason to care, but since that's all that's going on and none of this death and carnage does much to further the plot - really the death and carnage is the plot - it all gets numbing very quickly.  It's maddening really, because there's enough going on in X that I'd have liked to have enjoyed it; as it is, I found it just actively soul-sucking.

Spriggan, 1998, dir: Hirotsugu Kawasaki

More than any animated film I've seen, Spriggan gives the impression of having had an infinite budget to draw on.  Its animation is lavish to the point of ridiculousness; scenes that could be simple and straightforward without much loss of effect end up being marvelously sophisticated showcases of the animator's art.  I'm not, mind you, moaning about any of this - it's dazzling, frankly - but it does puzzle me a little.  You would think, if nothing else, that a film with this sort of obvious budget would be a little better known.  And, what's stranger, I'm not entirely certain that Spriggan is a better film for it.

Or ... no, of course it is.  But that animation is such a distinctive flavour that it makes it awfully hard to concentrate on anything else, and the fact that it's by far the movie's strongest element doesn't help that.  To put it another way, it would be great if the same over-attention had gone into the plot and script.  Not that they're bad, by any means, just that they would need to be astonishing to keep pace, and they're not that.  Like a great deal of feature-length Manga adaptations, Spriggan simply doesn't manage to successfully cram in everything it deems worthy of inclusion, or show much evidence of picking and choosing, and what we end up with is a movie that begins aping a spy thriller, shifts into Indiana Jones territory with an added dose of nineties action movie, and then drifts abruptly into bizarrely theological science-fiction with a subplot about child soldiers that it doesn't seem even faintly interested in reconciling with those other elements.  All of which is  par for the course with anime and not really a criticism, but there's no pretending that this somewhat unfocused tale is up to the wondrous, dizzying standards of that animation.

Still, when you're criticizing a film because it's plot is too laden with zany ideas to keep up with its exquisite animation, it's hard to pretend that that's anything but a recommendation.  Spriggan is pretty great, all told, and the only thing it fails to be is wholly satisfying in retrospect; while it's actually playing it front of you, it's thrilling stuff.

New Gall Force, 1989, dir: Katsuhito Akiyama

First up, good luck finding New Gall Force on IMDB or anywhere else; what happened here is that Manga Video took the middle chunk of an OAV series, released it out of context and retitled it, and as such, what we actually have here is Gall Force: Earth Chapter, a title that gives a much clearer sense that this is in no way a stand-alone story.

Only, it sort of is.  I put that fact down more to luck than judgement on Manga's part, and certainly there are elements that don't make a damn bit of sense ... though even then, as is often the way with these things, you don't really appreciate how much sense they're not making until you discover that there's a whole load of prologue you're missing.

At any rate, that grumble aside, I enjoyed Gall Force: Earth Chapter rather a lot.  I'd go so far as to say that it's the best of the Manga Collection series that I've yet seen, though given the levels of quality that statement involves, it's a bit like picking out a favourite infectious disease.  At any rate, I didn't enjoy it half so much as Landlock, but we've already established that my fondness for that movie has no basis in anything much, and objectively I'm ready to admit that Gall Force is better.

To that I'd add that if James Cameron had, instead of making Terminator 2, decided to knock out a low-budget anime series that vigorously cannibalised all of his earlier work, then it would have looked a lot like this.  And that, it turns out, is a good thing: ripping off your themes, characters, designs, tough female protagonists and every other damn thing from a skilled director at the height of their powers, who in turn had ripped off most of those things from your chosen genre in the first place, is actually an eminently sensible thing for a late eighties anime to do.

Though it doesn't quite explain why one of the crack military team is a small child in a crash helmet who doesn't appear to have the faintest clue that there's a war going on.  Maybe Newt was really badly dubbed in Japan or something?

Zeoraima - Project Hades / Project Hades 2, 1988, dir: Toshihiro Hirano

Oh look, and already we have another OVA that Manga video decided to arbitrarily rename for its DVD release!  Those guys sure must have had a lot of time of their hands; that or they wanted to give the impression that one four part OVA was in fact two feature length films, which is exactly the sort of deliberately misleading nonsense they seem to have delighted in in those days.  In this instance it's particularly absurd because there's no possible way you could mistake the two halves for feature films, not even if you were squinting and had a very loose sense of what beginnings, middles and endings entailed.

Anyway, Zeoraima starts off from a hackneyed position indeed: teenage male hero finds himself recruited to pilot giant robot that responds to no one but him against a load of other mechs, piloted by a bunch of evvvvvvil folks who generally insist on attacking him one at a time, because otherwise it would be a short story indeed.  However it does quickly go off on a far more interesting - though, it has to be said, entirely bonkers - tangent, and for that it surely deserves credit.  It's actually quite a clever story by the end, though it's easy to imagine a great many ways in which that story could have been better told than it is here.  If nothing else, giant robot battles where the giant robots did something other than stand taking it in turns to shoot at each would have been a tremendously good start.

Added to that is the fact that Zeoraima is just subversive and angsty enough to be faintly reminiscent of Neon Genesis Evangelion, the series that a mere seven years later would irreparably explode this sort of thing for all time.  As such, the comparison does Zeoraima no favours at all, except in so much as to say that it has a little bit more psychological complexity to it than many of these things.  At any rate, it's a great insight into just what Hideaki Anno was deconstructing so ferociously with Evangelion, and surely that counts for something.  Whether it counts as a recommendation ... well, no it doesn't.  Still, Zeoraima gets a narrow pass for keeping me amused - and frequently baffled! - through the course of its running time.


So not a particularly great batch this time round, all told, with Spriggan the only thing I'd flat-out recommend.  (And I really would, it's a  deal of fun and easy to find cheap second hand.)  New Gall Force gets a hesitant thumbs up if you're basically open to this whole late eighties and nineties anime thing; I can honestly say that I enjoyed every minute of watching it, even if it wasn't necessarily for very sensible reasons.  At any rate, I now feel that more sci-fi action movies would benefit from the addition of small, oblivious children in crash helmets.

Next time around: at least one actual, undeniable, stone-cold anime classic.  You've been warned!

[Other posts in this series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3]

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Old Dog, New Ticks

I was reading an article recently which suggested that it was a mistake to imagine you were ever too late on in life to master a new skill, or that having mastered one you were shut out from learning others.  The author's logic was that if it takes, say, eleven years to get really damn good at something then that's theoretically eight things you can get really damn good at in the average lifespan.

Given that most of us spend the first of those age-blocks grasping the basics of being a functional human being and the second trying to gain control of our rampaging hormones, and taking into account that you're unlikely to become, say, a world-class ballerina in your seventies, I'd have to dispute both their logic and their maths.  There are also some pretty obvious cultural assumptions in thinking that the average person is likely to live for eighty-eight years!  On the other hand, eleven years seems a bit on the pessimistic side; there are surely things you can become astonishing at in less time than that.  So by way of compromise, let's say that if you're fortunate enough to be long-lived, you should have ample time to train up kick-ass skills in at least five disciplines.  That's still pretty cool right there.  I mean, that's a good way of looking at life, isn't it?  At my current age of thirty-mumble-mumble-something, that leaves me a whole lot of learning to do yet.  Compared with the perspective that society generally encourages - you get tolerably good at one thing and then do it until you die or it becomes redundant - this feels a whole lot healthier.

But that's not really what I wanted to talk about, though obviously it is a bit.  It certainly ties into the subject I wanted to touch on, which is that if you intend to be a writer in this day and age, you have to expect to get competent at an awful lot of things that have only the most tenuous connection with writing.   You may well find yourself speaking in public, or doing other things that are outside of your comfort zone.  The necessities of research may turn you into an amateur historian, criminologist, astrophysicist or insect wrangler.  Unless you have the absolutely best agent and publisher in the world, you're looking at developing skill-sets like editing, web design, blogging, accountancy and publicity.  And if you're going the self-publishing route then feel free to add cover design, marketing and a whole host of other things to that list.

This can appear horribly intimidating and unfair, and it's easy to look at those people who only have the one thing to do - like, um, nail technicians and professional shot putters - and feel deeply envious.  Turn that on its head, though, and aren't we writers an hellaciously lucky bunch of folks?  Not only do we get to do something fundamentally awesome and creative, we inevitably acquire a whole host of new abilities in the process.  The more you go on and the deeper you get into those eleven years you've set aside in which to become a world-class author, the more you discover that you've inadvertently picked up a raft of skills that you never expected to have, some of which require every bit as much imagination and inventiveness as writing itself.

And here we are towards the end of a particularly rambling post, and I still haven't even touched on what first made me want to write it, which is that over the last month or two I've been learning to letter comic book pages, and just last week I finished my first attempt.  It wasn't something I ever anticipated needing to do, and there was a steep, steep learning curve - just getting my head around a professional art package took some serious doing - but it was also a little bit thrilling, and I'm proud of what I've accomplished.  I won't pretend I've come close to mastering it, and maybe it will take me another eleven years to do that, but I'm hopeful that I can do it well enough to not completely embarrass myself.  Whether I'm right ... well, if everything goes to plan, that will be for others to judge when the time comes!

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Writing Ramble: How I Write Novels Now, Part 2

So at the end of part 1 I'd got to the point of being about to start some actual writing, which depending on your perspective will probably seem either very early on or quite late, but in my case is about a third of the way through the novel-crafting process.  As I explained last time, by this juncture I'll likely have done at least some preliminary research, I'll have a detailed chapter plan based on my own synopsis and feedback from as many helpful friends as I can muster, and it will probably be in a spreadsheet because I have an obsession with spreadsheets that's all shades of unhealthy.  Seriously, if you ever ask me to my face I'll explain how it's actually the clearest way to represent all that information, how it's great for keeping track of word counts as I go and, oh, a whole host of excuses.  But the truth is, I have a problem and I know it.  I mean, right now a part of my brain is thinking about how much better this blog post would look in a spreadsheet.

This is not how I write novels.
(It really would.)

Um.  Right.  I was talking about novels not spreadsheets, which are two entirely different things, more's the pity.  Now I don't want to discuss the actual writing part here - and yes, that post title was perhaps ill-chosen, thinking back.  Suffice to say that I'll have a fairly good idea from my chapter plan of how long my planned book is going to be, and based on that I'll have allocated a set amount of time, say two hours a day for five months, that should get me through.  If that sounds a bit formal, it at least makes long-term planning a heck of a lot easier, and perhaps makes the creative process less stressful too; there's a lot to be said for knowing that if you consistently knock out a thousand words a day then in five months time you'll have a finished novel that looks something like the one you've intended.  Things will inevitably go wrong along the way, dates will get juggled and there'll be days when it all seems doomed, but so long as I get my words down I know I'll make it across the finish line.

Therefore, x number of months later I'll have a finished first draft.  It would be nice to forget about it for a while at this point - taking a break from any project once you've completed a draft is absolutely vital - but before I do that, I make sure to get it sent off to whatever wonderful folks have agreed to act as advance readers, and knock up a couple of print-on-demand copies for anyone, including me, who prefers to read the old-school way.  (Just how and why I find this useful is something I've discussed here in the past.)

A couple of months later, at the very least, I'll come back to that print copy, and over the course of about a month I'll work through it with my reader head on.  This serves at least three purposes; it re-familiarizes me with the book, gives me a chance to try and pick out some of the flaws I was blind to while I was putting it together, and last up allows me - hopefully! - to spot any typos.  (This, by the way, is the main reason why I prefer to work off a print copy; I find I skim over mistakes too easily on a screen.)  In that same month, I'll also hopefully be getting feedback from any advance readers and taking the opportunity to talk through any problems they've identified.

All of this feedback, my own and other peoples', will go into the second draft.  The aim this time through is to fix any plot issues, to polish, generally to cut - I usually aim to trim about ten percent - and generally to reach the point of having something that, while it will still contain mistakes and clumsy sentences and the odd bit of crap writing, looks basically like a finished work.  And around the same time, I'll be trying to wrestle my preliminary synopsis and chapter plan into a formal synopsis that's suitable for any publishers, editors and / or agents to read, this having the added advantage that it gets me thinking about the plot from an overhead perspective, yet another thing that can potentially highlight flaws.

Once that's all done - it generally takes two to three months - I'll let the manuscript sit again, for at least a month and more if I can afford to.  Then I'll go back for the final round.  The goal here, needless to say, is to produce a book that's as finished as I can make it.  This last draft is the quickest, and depending on how well the previous one went, might be very quick indeed.  Certainly if it takes more than a couple of months then something's gone badly wrong.

This is how I write novels.
I suppose that the obvious question at this point is, how useful would this approach to be to another writer?  To which the answer is, of course, that I've no idea.  It's certainly never been intended to be a catch-all solution, and I'm absolutely not presenting it as such here; like I said right at the beginning, I just happen to find these things interesting enough to think they're worth discussing.  I know, for example, that some writers only ever produce the one draft, and some write many more than I do.  That said, there are elements here that I'd have no hesitation about recommending.  If you're enough of a planner to go with an initial synopsis then getting feedback at that stage is a huge help; it's intimidating to let other people that close to your raw ideas, but it's worth it.  Reading through the previous draft in its entirety before you start the next one is invaluable, and as much as the environmentalist in me hates to say it, working off a dead tree copy reveals more typos that reading from a screen.  And preparing a formal synopsis while you're redrafting is actually much easier than trying to do it afterwards, counterintuitive as it might sound.

So what do you think, fellow novelist folks?  How different is your own approach to mine?  Am I making work for myself?  Or cutting corners?  Is there anything you think you might adopt, or anything you'd recommend that I'm not doing?

Friday, 29 May 2015

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 3

As we enter part 3 of this interminable series (it's perfectly possible that I'll keep going for as long as I can keep finding nineties anime, and there's still a fair bit on the to-watch shelf), the lows actually seem to be getting lower; but that's okay, because the highs are getting correspondingly higher, to the point where I'm stumbled across a couple of things I'd never even remotely heard of before all this began and which are genuinely great.  I mean, really, objectively great; not like Landlock great, and definitely not like Virus Buster Serge great.  [Checks previous article to confirm he didn't really try and convince anyone Virus Buster Serge was any kind of good.  Breathes sigh of relief.]

Okay, onwards and upwards!  This week: Vampire Hunter D, Dangaoih, Orguss 02 and Roujin Z...

Vampire Hunter D, 1985, dir: Toyoo Ashida

All right, I should probably stop claiming that these articles are about nineties anime.  Vampire Hunter D hails from all the way back in 1985, and if it has one absolutely terminal problem, it's that: low-budget animated pictures from thirty years ago do not look great, or even much more than adequate today.  (To put that time period in perspective, Disney released The Black Cauldron in the same year, with The Little Mermaid, the beginning of the Disney Renaissance and what we tend to think of as modern animation still a good four years away.)

Anyway, I'm assuming here that Vampire Hunter D was low-budget, but since my knowledge of eighties anime is even more scant than my knowledge of nineties anime, perhaps it was absolutely cutting edge at the time.  It hardly matters now, since it still looks horrible: dark colours, dull backgrounds - or frequently no backgrounds at all - and stilted animation.  What salvages it, somewhat, is the design work, the inherent appeal of which often manages to bypass the actual production, and the sheer goddamn weirdness of so much of what it's representing.  Vampire Hunter D takes place in a distant future that mixes high technology and Gothic grotesqueness, and there are points where it plays that concept for all it's worth; in those moments, the movie almost seems recommendable.

There is, however, one flaw with that logic, and that's the fact that sequel / follow-up Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust would be released fifteen years later.  Bloodlust contains everything that's good in Vampire Hunter D, has few to none of its failings, and is a tremendously good bit of gory action sci-fi that I'd recommend without hesitation.  If Bloodlust didn't exist, Vampire Hunter D might skirt by on its limited charms; since it does, it's hard to think of any reason to go back.

Dangaoih, 1987, dir: Toshihiro Hirano

Not so long ago I was debating the virtues of the company Manga Video with a friend.  He had a soft spot for them on the grounds that when he was getting into anime into the late eighties and early nineties they were about the only ones importing it; I countered that if it hadn't been them it would surely have been someone else, and that whoever that someone might have been, they couldn't possibly have done a crappier job of it.

I wish I'd seen Dangaoih at that point.  If I had, I'd have sat him through it and won the discussion hands down.

Dangaoih surely has to be - at least, I hope it has to be - the single shonkiest thing Manga ever stooped to.  Not so much the animation itself, which is at least watchable, and bursts into life during its action sequences.  No, the reason the western release of Dangaoih simply has no reason to exist is that Manga saw fit to release only parts two and three of a three part OVA, with the first episode crammed into a brief prologue that roughly conveys the effect of having a third of a movie conveyed to you by a hyperactive, imaginative, but not especially bright child.  This, needless to say, does it no favours at all.

But as if that weren't enough, Dangaoih also suffers from, hands down, the worst dub I've yet to encounter.  I mean, it's bad in all the usual ways a dub can be bad, but then on top of that there's the copious swearing, presumably added to earn a 15 certificate for a film that wouldn't otherwise have come close to warranting it.  It's jarring, not so much because it's witless and gratuitous - though it's absolutely both - but because it's clearly not what the characters are saying.  It doesn't synch up, or make much sense in context, or fit even slightly with the general tone.  Nor does it stretch to the levels of being comically bad, which you'd think should have been a given with material like this.

To be honest, though, as despicable a treatment as Manga gave Dangaoih, it could have been dubbed by the finest vocal cast ever assembled and presented in the most polished release imaginable, and it would still be a merely functional bit of nonsense.  As such, it becomes the first film in this blog post series that I'm going to wholeheartedly not recommend.  If you see Dangaoih for pennies in a budget bin, don't be tempted by that shiny giant robot or those - um - sexy, bodysuit-clad ladies!  Just walk on by!

Orguss 02, 1993, dir's: Fumihiko Takayama, Takahiro Okao, Hiroshi Tamada

I said in part one that a principal aim of this binge-watch was the hope, partly inspired I think by rediscovering the magnificent Wings of Honneamise, of finding some little-known classics that had previously passed me by.  There have been a couple of near misses, but it was beginning to seem a hopeless dream until I came across Orguss 02.

I'm genuinely surprised that Orguss 02 isn't better known, because it's very good indeed, and very reminiscent of work from the same era that's now unanimously acknowledged as classic.  With its tale of an early industrial society drifting towards war, it reminded me principally of Honneamise itself,  but also of Miyazaki's early feature-length efforts Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Laputa; enough so that it's easy to imagine all three as conspicuous influences.  Yet it doesn't feel derivative, and though there are familiar elements - giant mecha, teen heroes, robots - Orguss 02 doesn't seem greatly concerned with any of them.  Certainly, I'm struggling to think of any other anime that calls itself after a mech that then fails to appear for fully half the series and is only mentioned by name for the first time within minutes of the end.

In short, Orguss 02's main interests clearly lie elsewhere.  It's mostly about war, a subject it treats with a lack of sympathy that more than warrants that Miyazaki comparison.  It's also hugely cynical about politics; it presents the leaders of its two rival nations with such outright contempt that in places it plays like Games of Thrones-lite - and just like Games of Thrones, their conniving is thoroughly compelling and ends badly for all involved, up to and including any innocents caught in the vicinity.  Yet, though it views human nature bluntly, it's not a depressing show; there's a lightness of touch here that much anime that deals in dark and serious themes often lacks.  Perhaps the drift, late on, into wacky high-concept sci-fi will disgruntle some - if there's one thing that isn't in Orguss 02's favour, it's that it's a semi-sequel to an earlier show that it largely forgets about until the end - but it doesn't come at the expense of the good work done before, and like every element on display here, it works just fine on its own merits.  In short, if you're interested in somewhat older anime and have exhausted the usual candidates, I can't recommend this enough.

Roujin Z, 1991, dir: Hiroyuki Kitakubo

Having had my expectations lowered by a month of noticeably failing to dig up any lost classics, it was clearly too much to expect that I'd stumble upon not one but two.  Yet here we are, and here Roujin Z is, and I'm a happy bunny indeed.

In this case, the fact that the film appears to be barely known is that bit odder given the extraordinary array of talent behind the scenes. Its director, Hiroyuki Kitakubo, was key animator on Akira, and that unassailable masterpiece also provided Roujin Z with its scriptwriter, in the shape of the legendary Katsuhiro Ôtomo; but as if having the main talent behind Akira wasn't enough, we also get early work for one of the ten - maybe five? - greatest anime directors of all time, Satoshi Kon, who acts as art designer here.

On top of all that combined brilliance, Roujin Z has an irresistible premise: an elderly man is assigned to a revolutionary mechanical hospital bed that's supposed to fulfill all of his requirements, social, physical and mental.  But a combination of technical error, its occupant's stubbornness, the interference of the old man's former nurse and the fact that the bed is built on a foundation of experimental military technology (because of course it is!) leads to the bed gaining a life and agenda of its own, one that only grows more outlandish when it becomes possessed by its patient's dead wife.

If that also sounds like a distinctly anime-like set up, it's worth pointing out that Roujin Z's wider social message is very much overlaid by an affectionate assault on the tropes of its medium; that the bed, codenamed Project Z, ends up battling its military equivalent (codenamed Alpha, of course) should come as no surprise.  Yet if Roujin Z has a failing, it's this; the earlier satire of a culture that wants nothing to do with its aging population and the increasingly over the top parody of the second half don't exactly mesh.  Still, both are great fun, both contain some really exciting moments of animation - there's a glorious physicality to the action that you only seem to get in hand-drawn animation, and then only rarely - and if the end result falls somewhat short of the best work by all involved, it's still quite clearly a passion project made with vast enthusiasm by tremendously talented people.


So, a fifty-fifty success rate, or maybe even fifty-five percent, since Vampire Hunter D was just about worth watching.  And while I'll never get the minutes of my life that I wasted on Dangaoih back, at least it's set the bar so low that it's hard to see anything else limboing under it.  Can the next batch possibly beat this one?  Almost certainly not, but it won't stop me hoping!

[Other posts in this series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 4]